I never saw it coming.
There I was, twenty-eight years old, an apple-pie wife and two small kids, and I was dead.
The day started out like any other Tuesday. I got up five minutes to six so I could be in the shower before the news came on the radio, got dressed, kissed my wife and kids, and went to work. I came home at four-thirty, had a big bowl of Darla’s garlic and olive oil vermicelli, and headed for the local community rec fields. It was there where the trouble started.
It’s kind of funny. You would think that when you die, your eyes close on the world, then open up in the next. And there you are, all decked out in dazzling white robes and drifting around on clouds to the swinging sounds of St. Stephen’s Jubilant Harp Combo. But that didn’t happen. It was more of a groggy coming-to, like waking from a frat party bender, a random naked chick passed out next to you and no spent love glove in sight.
The hospital gown was gone, replaced by worn sliding pants and my purple Bent Horseshoe Tavern jersey still smelling Mountain Spring Fresh though I know I hadn’t washed it in nearly a month. My hat was crumpled on the bench under my head as if I had been sleeping there all night. Maybe I had. Everything else was gone – my glove, my bats, the Fisher sunflower seeds, the friends and family members who cheered our hapless gang of ten in every loss and the occasional win. No cooler of Bud Light, even. Nothing but a lonely field and the silence of empty bleachers. It was awfully quiet.
Part of me liked the quiet. It was a nice, peaceful respite from all the excitement of the past few days. Then reality kicked in. This was Field Number Six, and there was the pitching rubber where I lobbed my last pitch.
No one ever tells you what happens when you die. There’s no instruction manual, no continuing ED class. I was raised a Presbyterian and fully expected to go to heaven when I up and croaked. You know, someday when I’m white-haired and liver-spotted, a crusty mess of Cream of Wheat smeared all over the front of my shirt while I take my mid-morning nap. But it’s not that way.
Bad people go to hell. Ted Kaczynski. Charlie Manson. Nixon. The lady with a full cart in the express lane, spelunking through her cavernous purse for her check-writing pen. There is no hell, at least not from what I’ve seen. And the bad people are stuck here with the good.
It was the old-timer on Field Four who broke the deathly silence. “Claude Killens,” he told me as he waved from behind the fence, a well-used Rawlings wooden bat in hand. “Friends call me Jimmy.”
I stared at him. He wore a pair of decades-old blue jeans and a faded yellow T-shirt, blank except for the pocket about his left breast.
“Oh, sorry,” I said. All I could stammer beyond that was a muted “Hi.”
“Thought you’d died out there,” he said.
“Wait – you saw me?”
“I see most everything ’round here,” he said, turning his head. “If memory serves it was pretty dry that day. You boys with your spikes looked like Jesus walking on the water.”
“The infield dirt was pretty hard packed.”
“And when you hit your head, I thought you were coming to join me right then and there. But when you didn’t show I figured you must’ve pulled through all right.”
“Pulled through?” He may have seen things, but comprehension posed a challenge. “Cripes, I was hemorrhaging like a bloody Niagara Falls. I vegged out in a coma for a couple weeks, came out of it for an afternoon to have a happy little reunion with my family. Then my brain went on the fritz. Everyone got fuzzy, everything went dark, then I woke up on that bench over there,” I said, kicking the dirt in disgust. “I oughta sue those damn doctors for malpractice.” And my dotty flower-sending Aunt Flora, who should’ve known I’m deathly allergic to eucalyptus.
“I suppose it don’t really matter what brought you here, but I’m glad you could make it,” he said. “Been a long, lonely time out here.”
“Were you expecting me?”
“Someone, at least.” I suppose he wasn’t expecting me, of course. To him, I was just another member of the ghost population, and I was content to keep it that way.
“You know, you really should tie your shoes better,” Jimmy said.
“I like the laces long and loopy,” I said. “It’s my style.”
“It’s what got you killed.” Damn. I hate when other people are right. “But that pitch was a beauty, a nice smooth arc on it.”
“Good spin, too,” I added. “Smitty should’ve popped that thing up into orbit or tunneled it halfway to China. But he just got in one hell of a damn fine swing.”
“Your left fielder, what’s his name?”
“Ralph. Ralph Rood.”
“Yeah, that guy made one of the most spectacularly awkward catches I’ve ever seen. Looked like a flailing wildebeest out there.”
“I never saw it, but I know that when Ralph roams the field, there’s no such thing as grace involved,” I said. “Just a passion for the game.”
We looked at each other, then off in different directions, both of us at a sudden loss for conversation. I glanced around at the empty ball fields. “I’m not used it being so awfully quiet around here.”
“Come to think of it, it is pretty quiet, right? Pretty dead, I suppose you could say.” He cast a glance at a passing cloud. “In fact, I’m dead. You’re dead. And that’s what you and I are going to do around here—be dead.”
Though not the answer I wanted, it was what I expected. It had the same gut-punch feeling as missing the cut for the high school traveling team. “Are you the only one around here?”
“Nope. You’re here, too,” he said.
Smartass. “Besides you and me.”
“Nope. Just us. Walter and Red disappeared when they put those new ball fields in. Including the one you’re stuck to right now.”
“Yep. You can try to come over here, but I don’t think you’ll make it.”
Walking across the diamond, I slipped through the gap in the fence by the visitors’ bench and was immediately stopped. I tried putting my left foot in front of my right, but my feet kept landing in the same place. It was like walking on a treadmill with no moving belt.
I stuck out my hands hoping to push some invisible door, but they refused to reach out. I leaned forward, expecting to land face-first on the asphalt, but my knees buckles and I collapsed in a heap. It was the oddest sensation, not being able to move forward.
“Told ya,” chided Jimmy.
I walked down a bit farther, past the visitors’ bench and along the left-field line and tried again. Center field. Right field. First base. Same result. Everywhere I went, I was met with an unseen wall a few feet beyond the grass and dirt of the field.
“What gives?” I asked.
“Like I said, you can’t leave your field,” the old man replied.
“But why can’t I go anywhere?”
“Those are the rules. I don’t make them, and I don’t enforce them. But rules are rules, and we’re obliged to obey. No leaving your field.”
He glowered at me. “Now you stop talking like a three-year-old with your whys and why nots and let me explain.” Jimmy told me he seemed to have this whole death thing figured out. He thought that wherever you die, or at least some related place, your spirit or soul or whatever you want to call it gets tethered there. It could be a truck stop. A rotting oak tree. Perhaps a favorite fishing pond. In my case, it was the Dyersville Municipal Rec Complex, the last softball diamond on the left. Field Number Six. Doesn’t sound much like the idyllic afterlife, but maybe that’s all there was.
Now this didn’t sit well with my Presbyterian sensibilities. But if this truly was the case, then the Catholics didn’t have it right either, because this wasn’t purgatory. That’s for people who aren’t quite ready for heaven, kind of a junior college for dead Catholics. And from what Jimmy’s said, we weren’t ever moving on from this place, at least not voluntarily.
“So what did you do?” I asked. “What got you here?” Jimmy’s eyes moistened and his shoulders drooped.
“Ticker seized coming around third base. Bopped the ball pretty good, up and over the scoreboard in left-center. Was doing my little victory jog. It was my seventh of the season, you know. Off Tiny McGee. Poor kid. I took him deep four times that summer.”
“You mentioned two other guys. Did they play softball here, too?”
“Nope. Liked to play with the pigskin. Both were pretty good in their day.”
“So you saw them play?”
“For a while. They were here long before I was. But when the city took out those football fields, well, Walter and Red went away, too.”
“Where’d they go?”
“I’m not really sure. Everywhere and nowhere, I suppose. If your place in this world goes, your spirit goes.”
Jimmy looked past the ball fields. “Used to be a house over there, where the school is. Walter told me there was a big fire. A mom, dad, seven kids all trapped inside. Probably a kerosene spill and up the place went. Poor folks were glued to their little plot of land until the new school was built. Now they’re gone forever, souls, spirits, and all.”
“I was hoping for something a bit more uplifting.”
“Let me finish,” Jimmy grumbled. “You draw energy, nourishment, whatever you call it, from this place. It provides sustenance like a giant placenta. If the placenta shrivels up and dies, it can no longer nourish the body, so the body dies. Helps the overcrowding a bit, I suppose.”
“I didn’t realize a ballplayer could be a philosopher,” I mused. “But I don’t want to hear about being able to die twice. I mean, it’s bad enough the first time.”
As Jimmy talked, I saw a scratched-up game ball on the ground next to the fence, a ball that didn’t seem to be there a few moments before. I picked it up. “Hey, Jimmy!” I called. “Are softballs stuck, too?”
“Don’t know. Never had one over here, just the bat,” he replied. “No one was ever close enough to play, anyway. Red couldn’t throw the ball more than twenty yards, and Walter was purely a linebacker – had no arm, just a nose for the tackle.”
I turned the ball over, inspecting every seam, wondering if it was the ball I threw just before I tripped. If it was, maybe that’s why it was here. And maybe that’s why I was here.
“Are you going to throw that thing, or are you waiting for someone else?” I pulled my arm back, cocked for the throw, and launched it as hard as I could. The ball arced gracefully through the blue summer sky, across the forbidden asphalt, down over the fence and bounced once on the hard packed dirt of Field Number Four, right up into Jimmy’s outstretched hands.
“That’s interesting,” he said, and tossed it back. Our conversation was rudely interrupted by the menacing grumble of an unmuffled truck engine. “We have visitors tonight,” Jimmy said with an expectant grin.
On the other side of Field Two, a big Toyota pickup, more rusted red than green, pulled into the parking lot. Big Lou uncorked himself from the driver’s side, his tent-like Nev-R-Leak Plumbing jersey billowing in the wind. He was the first of many to arrive that night, including my Bent Horseshoe brethren. Ascending to their usual places in the bleachers by Field Six were the members of our fan club: a few wives and girlfriends, their children, and a couple of college kids hoping for a free beer. And right there with them were the people I didn’t expect: Darla, Darren, and Riley. My family.
I hadn’t thought much about them yet. I don’t think I had the time. But the thoughts and memories were now coming on faster and harder than I could handle. Memories of high school, marriage, the births of our boys, and the realization that I wouldn’t—I couldn’t— be there for them. I wasn’t ready to deal with them yet, and almost all of me wanted to run and hide. But the boundaries of Field Six forced me to watch.
There they were, Darren playing catch with Ralph Rood, little Riley diving in the dirt around the plate, that asshole Clint grabbing Darla’s ass and trying to catch a glimpse down her shirt.
“That your wife over there?” Jimmy called. “The one with the big dobbies? She makes me feel twenty-five again.”
I nodded an affirmation, happy in the knowledge that my wife’s tits are as therapeutic to others as they were to me. Those are two more things I’m really going to miss.
“Hey, sport,” Jimmy said as the living players took their places on his field. “Time to show you a little magic.” He picked up his bat, strolled over and planted himself right in front of the plate. The pitcher lobbed up a fat one, and the batter swung. Right through the pitch, and right through Jimmy. “Pretty neat, huh?” If he was hoping for shock value, he should try investing in something else.
“I kind of figured that was coming,” I said.
“Yeah, well, fine. Now watch this.” He stepped behind the batter, raised the bat and readied his home run swing. The next pitch floated through the air a little flat, and both the batter and Jimmy swung. The batter blasted the ball on a line to right. Jimmy’s bat shot forward then bounced right back from the batter. He didn’t flinch, and neither did Jimmy.
“That’s great,” I said, with a little more than a hint of sarcasm. “And why is that important?”
“Listen, kid. It’s been lonely out here. I’ve hoped others would join me. God knows I’ve tried but it seems just I can’t get through to them. You’d try anything for some company, too, if you’d been here over thirty years. Now toss that ball back on over.”
As I threw the ball back, a cheer went up from our team’s bleachers, and I looked back to see Chet Andreeson chugging around the bases, his purple jersey anything but a blur on those stubby legs.
Darla was waving wildly, rooting hard for our team. I walked over behind the backstop, expecting to be halted at any time. But I climbed the steps and sat down next to my wife. Like Jimmy’s batter, Darla didn’t move. I tried to put my hand on her leg, but it rested a good inch above her man-crushing thigh. The buffer wouldn’t allow me any comfort or assurance.
The boys were behind us between the fields, playing catch on the asphalt. I heard the ping of a bat and another cheer. Darla leapt to her feet, my hand shoved aside. Then there was a crack of another bat. Not a ping, but a definite crack, one that no one seemed to hear but me. It was followed by shouting and Darla turned. I turned. Everyone turned.
The ball had rocketed from somewhere behind us and tried to plow through Darren’s temple. As his lifeless body crumpled to the ground, Darla shrieked and the benches emptied. As a gawker barricade quickly formed around my fallen son, no one noticed the scratched-up ball rolling away.
I looked over to Field Four and saw the culprit standing there, the pine-tarred Rawlings bat resting on his backswing shoulder, his face not one of pity or regret. He countered my bewildered stare with a proud malevolence.
“I figured we could use another player,” he said.